Saving Private Ryan

War is indeed hell. It’s not pretty. It’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be horrendous, gritty, and ultimately, numbing. There’s no method to its madness. In one small insignificant way, it’s like making movies. Lots of action followed by long periods of boredom and silence.


Having visited the theater of World War II three times before, director Steven Spielberg returns with a vengeance, skillfully creating a film that’s tough to take but essential on every front. Spielberg’s fascination with World War II brought us the comical “1941,” the under-appreciated “Empire of the Sun,” and the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List.” saving private ryanWith each effort, Spielberg has shown growth. “Saving Private Ryan” is his most accomplished film to date, an unnerving look at war that never flinches. Filmed with hand-held cameras in a sea of blood, vomit and intestines, the battle of Omaha Beach that opens the film is one of the most intense depictions of battle ever captured by a Hollywood director.

Spielberg said that he didn’t want to make another film about the Great War that would serve as a slap in the face to those who actually lived it. To that extent, Spielberg did him homework, demanding that the battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” deliver the same shock and despair that the soldiers felt when they landed. Spielberg is a master storyteller, and here he deftly pays homage to the great war films that came before while giving the film his own personal spin. This isn’t your father’s World War II film, even if the characters seem familiar.

As Captain John Miller, the former school teacher who now finds himself leading a platoon into battle on Omaha Beach in Normandy, Tom Hanks is perfect. His performance is the glue that holds the rest of the film together, a common sense every man who just wants to do his job and go back home to his wife. With a shaking right hand that suggests something more than nerves, Miller tries to take the war in stride. Which is impossible when his platoon comes up against the well- fortified Germans, who mow down the landing American soldiers faster than they can reach the beach. As bloody carnage lines the beaches, Miller and his men eventually storm the machine gun bunker, turning the enemy into toast. Having conquered one stronghold, Miller is given a priority assignment. He and his men are to locate Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), who parachuted behind enemy lines.

Ryan’s three brothers have all died in combat within a week of each other, and Washington wants to bring him home. Great P.R., but is the life of eight soldiers worth the life of one? That’s the nagging question that permeates throughout the film. Thanks to Robert Rodat’s thoughtful screenplay, the logic of such a mission is discussed but never resolved. Miller and his men do it because that’s their orders. Normally, that would be the end of discussion. Still, the characters try to make sense of the war and their involvement in it. This gives Spielberg and his characters the human under trappings needed to make their fates more substantial. While they canvas the French countryside looking for Ryan, Rodat’s screenplay comes alive with rich dialogue that clues us into each man’s psyche.

Little by little, we learn who Miller and his men really are. Tom Sizemore is exceptional as Miller’s right hand man, Sgt. Horvath. Sizemore delivers the performance of his career as the no-nonsense sergeant who knows the logistics of war. It’s a solid, honest performance. Spielberg was wise to stock his platoon with actors who have proven their worth in independent films but might be foreign to mainstream audiences. There are no star turns here. Everyone and everything is vital to the overall perfection of the film. Edward Burns takes the smart ass Brooklyn boy character to new heights, while Vin Diesel and Adam Goldberg pepper their ethnic characters with just the right amount of shading. Diesel is especially memorable.

Jeremy Davies, so good in “Spanking the Monkey,” does a remarkable job as the non-combat clerk who is thrown into the middle of hell when he joins Miller’s platoon. Watching Davies go from naive writer to combat weary soldier is heartbreaking. I also liked Barry Pepper’s sure-shot Pvt. Jackson, who prays before each shot, and Giovanni Ribisi’s Wade, the company medic who realizes that he’s unprepared for the real carnage of war. Hanks boldly leads these men through thick and thin, forcing them to make some tough decisions. When one of their own is killed trying to overtake a radar station, the platoon must decide what to do with a surviving German soldier. How Hanks handles this extremely volatile situation is a credit to his ability as an actor. Matt Damon, Hollywood’ current golden boy, redeems himself nicely as the elusive Pvt. Ryan, who can’t understand why the military would take such a risk over him.

Damon stands his ground in a well-balanced performance. At nearly three hours, Spielberg has given “Saving Private Ryan” the room it needs to breathe. Anything less would have destroyed the kinetic rhythm of the film. Credit Janusz Kaminski and his camera operators for the film’s near-documentary look and feel. They put us right in the middle of the action, sometimes to nauseating effect.

Michael Kahn’s editing is a textbook of the craft, while John Williams’ score is both noble and sentimental. The war torn scenic design is by Tom Sanders, who makes it look all too real. “Saving Private Ryan” proves that war films are back with a vengeance. It sets new standards for the genre, standards that will be hard to top.

COMPLETE CHECK-UP

VISION: Excellent

check.gif (406 bytes) 1.85: widescreen

check.gif (406 bytes) Anamorphic Enhanced

check.gif (406 bytes) Dual Layer

check.gif (406 bytes) Outstanding presentation retains the film’s gritty, almost realistic look. Nice, tight colors combine with strong blacks and human flesh tones to create images that are truly dazzling. Depth of field is outstanding, as is attention to detail. No compression artifacts or noise. Color saturation is pure and strong throughout.

HEARING: Excellent

check.gif (406 bytes) Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround

check.gif (406 bytes) Highly realistic Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack puts you right in the middle of the action. Ambient noise is so realistic that you’d swear bombs and bullets were going off right next to you. Stereo separation is impressive throughout, as is the soundtrack’s definitive front to rear spatial separation. Basses are booming to the point of exploding, while middle and high ends are clean and pure. Dialogue mix is strong and forthright, while rear speakers receive more than their share of surround effects, ambient noise and musical cues. No hiss or distortion.

ORAL: Good

check.gif (406 bytes) Closed captions in English for the hard of hearing.

COORDINATION: Good

check.gif (406 bytes) Handsome, motion active main and scene access menus are truly inspiring.

check.gif (406 bytes) Nicely composed message from director Steven Spielberg on why he made the film.

check.gif (406 bytes) Excellent compilation of production notes and cast & crew bios and filmographies.

check.gif (406 bytes) Two theatrical trailers.

check.gif (406 bytes) “Into the Breach,” a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, including testimony from the cast and crew and veterans of the war. Intensely fascinating and almost heartbreaking in moments, the documentary brings us up close and personal with the talent who made the film and the actual soldiers who fought in the war. The documentary also features footage from two of Spielberg’s 8mm efforts from his youth. Highly collectible.

PROGNOSIS: Excellent

check.gif (406 bytes) It would almost seem treasonous not to have a copy of this DVD in your collection.

VITALS:

check.gif (406 bytes) $29.98/Rated R/169 Minutes/Color/20 Chapter Stops/Keepcase/#84433

ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen

PATIENT: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

BIRTH DATE: 1998

HMO: Dreamworks Home Entertainment



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